Dr. Brian J. Troth // In my last contribution to Synapsis, I wrote about what it means to be responsible in times of epidemic and pandemics. As the weeks have passed and tensions run higher surrounding the uncertainties that face all people around the world, it’s clear that making a responsible decision is not merely a matter of choice. In countries where personal freedoms have been put to the test in the name of the greater good, a minimum level of privilege is needed to obey stay-at-home orders. For most of the developed world, powerful ‘socialist’ governments can provide that basic level of support by freezing rent payments and assuring citizens that their basic needs will be guaranteed. In other parts of the world, inequalities and the shortcomings of governments are particularly salient.
Consider the image below: three people carry water jugs on their back. The background of the photo suggests that they live in an undeveloped and rural part of the world. The viewer learns from the caption that because they lack access to potable water, 844 million people will not be able to apply the social distancing guidelines countries around the world are calling for. This photo is part of a series produced by World Vision. Another ad in the series shows a crowd of people reaching for a water source and another’s slogan reveals that those without potable water will also not be washing their hands.
Now consider the following image taken by Columbus Dispatch photojournalist Joshua Bickel. It shows a group of protestors at the Ohio Statehouse, revendicating their freedom of assembly to denounce what they see as overreaches of a state that has taken away their sources of entertainment and has forced thousands of Ohioans into an unemployment database that cannot handle the volume.
What if we were to emblazon the same slogan on this image? ‘We won’t stay home,’ takes on a very different meaning in this case. In the first, the viewer may react with sadness for the plight of those who already face difficulties that may only get worse should they fall ill. Perhaps one may even feel a sense of guilt for being born into a community that never thinks twice about their access to running water. For Ohioans who may come across this image of protest, reactions may range from annoyance to anger as they blame these people for extending the state shutdown and putting their communities at risk by standing in such close proximity. The viewer of these two images goes quickly from, ‘What a shame,’ to ‘Shame on you.’
Shame is endemic in times of pandemic as we rush to deal with the effects of disease, prevent the situation from worsening, and attribute blame. Shame is a powerful motivator and members of our society cast shame time and time again. While the COVID-19 epidemic has had its encouraging moments of solidarity, its narrative has revealed tensions that largely operate on shaming other people. Its narrative has at times been xenophobic, racist, ageist, classist, and even ableist. It is compelling to look at the tools used to enforce this shame mechanism. In the United Kingdom, for example, channel four ran a 20-second ‘important safety announcement for your arse,’ a cheeky series of images of buttocks that communicated the message that the most important thing Brits could do with their arse was park it on their couch. A map of phone data in the United States showed where Americans were moving less and where Americans continued to live life as if nothing had changed. New England and the Midwest stand out for their exemplary ability to stay home compared to the Plains and Deep South, where it appears that life has not changed much.
Those around the Great Lakes congratulate themselves on not only flattening the curve, but crushing it. Implicit in their rejoice is an admonishment: there is shame in not doing what you can to flatten the curve. Yet Channel Four’s video takes for granted that not everyone can stay home if they need to work to provide for their families. Maps of cell phone data in the United States leave more questions than they answer: how do we account for differing levels of education, access to the media and information, rural populations versus urban ones. We also must ask to what extent white collar cities lend themselves more readily to the type of remote work governments are encouraging while blue collar employees have no choice but to go to work. A commercial that plays during my Hulu marathons shows a woman leisurely doing yoga in her living room while on the other side of my town, a college student is working at the grocery store so they don’t lose their apartment–their landlord is not freezing rent–in the middle of a semester that abruptly switched to online modalities of learning. The student might have already signed up for that type of class if they learned well that way.
Shame is a ubiquitous part of life and can scarcely be avoided but by the most irreprochable of those who walk among us. Yet society inscribes different mechanisms for shaming certain groups more than others: those who look different or act differently from accepted norms. For Martha Nussbaum (Hiding from Humanity), shame carries with it a moral component, and that is something we see with all of the examples above. Shame is used as a tool for encouraging or forcing compliance because it is the right thing to do, or because not doing so is morally reprehensible. One must enjoy a certain level of power to evoke shame on others: the wealthy can afford not to work, the educated have jobs that can be done at home, those with access to smartphones and their own reliable transportation can order their groceries delivered directly to their car without ever coming into contact with people in the store, and so forth.
Shame is as pandemic as the disease itself: it knows neither borders nor limits. Reactions against Chinese people and the food market in Wuhan reveal not only xenophobia, but elicit disgust (more on disgust to follow) amongst Western-centric peoples who draw different lines between which animals can or cannot serve as food sources to humans. Shame cannot operate alone, however: shame is ineffective if its victims do not feel humiliation or if it does not evoke disgust or provide reasonable guilt.
The other week, I went for a jog. The CDC had not encouraged the blanket usage of masks when leaving the house, and public health officials recommended solo exercise. As I ran, I saw an elderly woman walking a perpendicular path. She saw me and stopped 20 feet away until I had jogged past. Did I disgust her? Should I feel guilty for jogging where I could cross paths with a member of a vulnerable population? This is a fairly innocuous example: both of us had the support of our government to be outside for physical exercise and the distance between us didn’t warrant a strong reaction. We maintained a respectable and responsible distance throughout our three-second non-interaction. Not every example can be as harmless.
Whereas shame is moral, disgust is physical (Curtis, Biran, Menninghaus); it is a self-preservational compulsion to recoil. The idea of eating ‘strange’ animals repulses the Western palate. It is hard to look at images of body bags stacked in freezer trucks and of mass graves being dug outside New York City. I stop in my tracks at the grocery store when there are too many people in the aisle. I weigh the need for that foodstuff against the perceived risk of contagion. I get stiff when the card reader doesn’t work and the cashier asks to take my card from my hand. My physical compulsion to save my health, if it is noticed, may serve to shame those around me: for being in a crowded aisle, for leaving the house after a sneeze, for not using grocery delivery. It could even shame someone who can’t control their situation: a single parent who can’t leave their daughter at home or someone who can’t afford grocery delivery.
Shame renders the body untouchable. The corona-ill are 21st century lepers and we have found ways to write their illness on their untouchable skin. Wearing a mask is all at once a sign of taking responsibility and possibility that that person is a threat. The dying must die alone because even their corpses can transmit disease. The mere idea of touching the disease is unthinkable and has us returning home with our groceries to disinfect them one by one on our counters. In washing away an invisible virus that we cannot be sure is there or not, we symbolically wash away all that we cannot touch.
What happens when we have no choice but to touch the untouchable body, when the barriers between people must be lifted? It is met with shame and fear. An April 3, 2020 article in Le Parisien exposes the struggles of being deaf or hard-of-hearing in the middle of a pandemic. While wearing masks has become the responsible thing to do to curb transmission of the disease if you must be outside your home (or if you have no choice), it has created a new barrier to communication for a community that may rely on reading lips. Cashiers, pharmacists, and doctors must remove their masks in order to communicate with their clients, one of whom was quoted that she felt ‘misunderstood’ and ‘attacked,’ as if she were blamed for forcing her pharmacist to remove the mask. I have a running friend who interprets for the deaf and hard of hearing, and he had to put himself in harm’s way to accompany a client to a medical visit.
In this time of uncertainty, there is stigma in testing positive for COVID-19. It raises questions as to what actions that person took that put them at risk or which ones they did not take that would have mitigated that risk. As public health officials contact the web of people that the ill may have been near, shame spreads along with the disease. The globe grapples with the effects of an ongoing pandemic, without differentiating between whether one ‘cannot’ or ‘will not’ stay home. Inequalities that we already knew existed are having very real consequences on the ways people interact with each other, avoid one another, create barriers, and close borders. There is a tense relationship to the notion of choice. Some choose to go out, while others choose to stay home. Yet we very well should remember that the illusion of choice is a false creation of a healthy bourgeoisie: choice is a luxury afforded by the fortunate few who can cast their shame onto someone else.